UNLV is counting on top incoming recruit Nick Blake to make an impact this season, and the Las Vegas native is confident he’ll be able to deliver — despite the current restrictions the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on the offseason.
Blake, a 3-star recruit and the top-ranked prospect in the Rebels’ incoming class, is back in Las Vegas after spending a prep year at IMG Academy in Florida. The 6-foot-7 wing player said that year at IMG allowed him to fine-tune areas of his game, which should ease his transition to Division I basketball.
“The goal was to go to prep school to get better mentally, body-wise and my game, and I think I did all that,” Blake said. “I think I’m ready to hit the ground running in college.”
The Rebels would certainly benefit from Blake being able to crack the rotation right away. UNLV is returning just three players from last year’s team, and though junior guards Bryce Hamilton and David Jenkins figure to carry most of the scoring load, the team could still use an upgrade in the firepower department.
Blake could offer that. He possesses a good shooting stroke, and he is quick enough and strong enough off the dribble to create offense. He also worked to improve his off-the-ball skills during his prep year, which is something high school players regularly struggle to grasp when they arrive at college.
“I think I improved moving without the ball,” Blake said. “Sometimes I would become stagnant, but I believe I became better working off of screens.”
IMG Academy ran an offense similar in concept to T.J. Otzelberger’s system, so Blake has a year of experience playing in an open, small-ball scheme that emphasizes passing and shooting.
After learning how to play without the ball, Blake believes he is ready to thrive in UNLV’s souped-up version.
“At IMG we ran almost the same exact offense, where you have that corner-corner-wing-wing, and it’s a lot of movement. You don’t necessarily always have to have that first ball screen; someone can cut coming off that and get into a ball screen action and all that different stuff. And I believe that system really works. I believe if you have five skill players out there it is so hard to guard. Being able to make reads off the pick-and-roll from your big men and your guards, knowing where to be and just having a lot of people that can shoot, pass and defend, that just makes everything so much easier.”
For now, Blake is living in quarantine like the rest of the sports world. He does not have regular access to a hoop, so most of his skill work has been focused on ball-handling drills.
He has also made it a point to keep in regular contact with his future teammates, particularly fellow newcomers with Las Vegas ties like guard Donavan Yap (Arbor View) and Jhaylon Martinez (formerly of Coronado). Blake said the teammate he has Snapchatted with most frequently has been incoming forward Edoardo Del Cadia.
When he hasn’t been honing his dribbling skills or video chatting with his teammates, Blake has been watching basketball highlights online. Somewhat surprisingly, his tastes tend to skew old-school.
On Twitter, Blake espoused admiration for Larry Bird’s all-around game and cast a vote for Shawn Kemp as the NBA’s best in-game dunker. Blake also advocated for bringing back a couple staples of 1990’s basketball that have been lost to the modern game — hand-checking and mid-range offense.
“I think it’s just how I grew up playing the game,” Blake said. “I feel like tough, physical basketball is definitely something I’ve acclimated myself to and grew up on. To me, if you allow hand-checking I’m still getting my buckets.
“Mid-range game is definitely a touchy subject just because everybody’s so crazy on analytics right now,” he continued. “I feel like you can really catch defenses off guard if you can have a stop-and-pop mid-range game. I’m not saying that shot is for everybody, but if you can work on it and can master it I feel like that’s more unguardable than being so predictable and just shooting a 3 or a layup.”
If Blake’s game is anywhere near as seasoned as his taste in basketball eras, the Rebels will be getting an instant impact player in 2020-21.